Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Our prefrontal control system is altered by unconscious stimuli.

Lau et al. (PDF here) used fMRI to test
..whether unconscious information can influence the cognitive control system in the human prefrontal cortex. Volunteers had to prepare to perform either a phonological judgment (whether the word is bisyllabic) or a semantic judgment (whether the word refers to concrete objects) on an upcoming word, based on the instruction given at the beginning of each trial. However, in some trials they were visually primed to prepare for the alternative (i.e., "wrong") task, and this impaired their performance. This priming effect is taken to depend on unconscious processes because the effect was present even when the volunteers could only discriminate the identity of the primes at chance level. Furthermore, the effect was stronger when the visibility of the prime was near zero than when the visibility of the prime was significantly higher. When volunteers were unconsciously primed to perform the alternative task, there was also decreased neural activity in the brain areas relevant to the instructed task and increased neural activity in the brain areas relevant to the alternative task, which shows that the volunteers were actually engaged in the wrong task, instead of simply being distracted. Activity in the mid-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was also found to be associated with this unconscious priming effect. These results suggest that the cognitive control system in the prefrontal cortex is not exclusively driven by conscious information, as has been believed previously.

Neural activity associated with priming. (Click to enlarge). Data were extracted from the brain areas that were previously found to be associated with the Phonological task (left ventral premotor area) and the Semantic task (left inferior frontal cortex and middle temporal gyrus). The location of these is schematically illustrated on the brain above. Here, task relevant means activity from the Semantic areas when the volunteers were instructed to perform the Semantic task, and activity from the Phonological areas when they were instructed to perform the Phonological task. Task irrelevant means the activity was extracted from the alternative areas, which was more important for the primed task than the instructed task. When the visibility of the primes was low (LoVis), which means the priming effect was strongest, activity in task-relevant areas was significantly reduced (p = 0.019), and activity in task-irrelevant areas was significantly increased (p = 0.045). This suggests that the volunteers were actually engaged in exercising the wrong neural circuits when they were primed to perform the wrong task. This effect is not present when the visibility of the primes was high (HiVis), suggesting that this effect could not be attributable to the degree of conscious perception of the prime. This is reflected by a three-way interaction between Task Relevance (i.e., activity in task relevant areas vs activity in task irrelevant areas), Congruency (Con; between prime and instruction), and Visibility (of the prime) (p = 0.040). InCon, Incongruency; n.s., not significant.

Mid-DLPFC and unconscious priming. (Click to enlarge) Lau et al. looked for activity in the brain that was associated with the unconscious priming effect in general, regardless of which task was explicitly cued, by testing for the interaction between Congruency (Con; between prime and instruction) and Visibility (of the prime). This test revealed activity in the mid-DLPFC (right; x = –38). This effect was specific to the Low-Visibility condition, in which volunteers did not consciously perceive the primes. InCon, Incongruency; n.s., not significant; HiVis, high visibility; LoVis, low visibility.

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